In late 1994, Bob Ludwig had just mastered “Altitude” for us, and despite the man’s genius at his craft, we were very unhappy with the results. In the recording and mixing process of the album, we had taken great care to maintain the dynamics that were an important part of the songs themselves as well as the band’s sound overall. Ludwig’s take on it was to wipe that all out in order to make the record sound great on FM radio. That was not his idea, by the way, it was in fact the directive from Howard Thompson, our A&R man. Those were his instructions to Nick Sansano (Producer) and Brad Leigh (Engineer) and was never mentioned to us until after the fact.
You see, The Rake’s Progress operated as a 5-person consensus and we were very neurotic people at the time. The grown-ups (Howard, Nick, Brad, and our manager Patti DeVries) had enough of our group dysfunction by the time we were done with the 3 months of production, tracking, and mixing to the cost of a quarter million dollars of Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss’ money.
We were told by Nick that he and Brad would be driving up to Portland Maine together to work with Bob in his studio there, and they would take our aesthetic wishes along with them. They never told us about Howard’s directive so we were pretty shocked and upset at what we heard when we put the DAT on at Matty Kaufman’s apartment and heard all of our precious dynamics gone.
We were so upset, that Bob Ludwig wrote us a very thoughtful letter on his thinking behind the decision to level everything with compressors. He said that since this was supposed to be an “FM Radio Hit Record” he used his very fancy and expensive high-end compressors to do the leveling, rather than have the crappy compressors the FM stations use to the job. This is an entire topic unto itself, but to explain it briefly, FM radio stations compress their signals to level out the dynamic range (i.e. loud/soft). They do this so their signal doesn’t over-modulate and bleed into other frequencies (which is illegal), and also so that the music has more “presence” (i.e. maintains a level and relatively loud “in your face” sound to hold your attention). Some stations compress heavier than others, and the worst culprits of all are the stations that play the “hits”. We were poised at the time to have a “hit record” and that’s why the label was paying all this money to get this dang thing out there. Bob’s rationale was that the record would sound better on the radio, and he was right about that, but it made the CD listening experience pretty dang lousy.
Since we were on the road so much at the time, four of us in the band maintained a small apartment-slash-crashpad on East 10th Street in Manhattan, which we shared with a few of our siblings. One evening, Tim and I were hanging by ourselves around drinking beers and mulling the fate of our beloved new album, when the phone rang. It was Howard.
“Hey Bob, any of the guys around?”
“Yeah, Tim is here.”
“Cool. Why don’t you and Tim come over to the 10th Street Lounge. There’s someone I want you to meet.”
Hanging with Howard always meant fun, and the fun was always on the label’s dime (which technically meant our dime actually), so Tim and I headed down to the bar which was just a block away.
The 10th Street Lounge was a bar which we frequented often since Mary Denny (the woman in the Cheese Food Prostitute album sleeve) was the manager, and we never paid for a single thing, ever. The whole staff treated us like rock stars even though we were only marginally successful. Actual celebrities drank there and they treated us just the same way as they did Kate Moss and Mike Piazza.
It was a Tuesday night and the place was practically empty. At the main bar towards the front sat a few couples making all lovey-dovey, and in the small bar at the rear sat Howard with a guy wearing a winter parka, the hood pulled over his head so you couldn’t see who it was. They were having a chat and a laugh with the hot female bartender. In addition to being a haven of free drinks for us, the bar was staffed with beautiful girls who were very happy to spend quality time with guys in marginally successful rock bands such as Tim and myself.
We approached Howard and his Mystery Friend. Howard turned and smiled at us.
“Bob, Tim, I’d like you to meet my friend John.”
The man pulled down his hood slightly and extended his hand. It was John Lydon AKA, Johnny Rotten, whose post-Sex Pistols band PIL Howard had signed back in the ’80’s.
I froze up completely.
“Aaaaah, so THIS is the band.” he said with a curious look in is eye. Tim and I shook his and and sat down.
“They’ll have what I’m having, luv.”
The bartender fetched a bottle of Stoli and scooped some ice into a cocktail shaker. She poured a healthy measure of the vodka in to the shaker and mixed it with a spoon. Strained into our glasses, was basically pure vodka watered down with a bit of ice.
“Cheers, boys! Howard is a dick!”
Tim and I laughed hysterically, as did Howard. I don’t think there’s anyone else in the world Howard would have sat there and took that from.
We tossed back our shots, and my initial nervousness melted away as I realized this guy was going to be fun.
“Pardon me boys, need to visit the loo.”
John stood up and walked back to the restrooms. Howard leaned in to me and TIm.
“Listen, guys, don’t bullshit with him. He hates that. Just act normal, be your normal selves, and we’ll all have a blast.”
Mr. Rotten returned a moment later and rejoined the group.
“John, these wankers have written a song about me called ‘Howard Is A Drag'”.
John’s face lit up – he was delighted. “Oh, that’s WONDERFUL! I’ll be in the music video, and we can do it on a speedboat in the middle of the ocean. We’ll make Howard wear a leather thong, and I’ll pierce his scrotum. Then I’ll attach the chain of the anchor to his scrotum and throw the anchor into the ocean, so as the boat speeds along Howard is dragged overboard and submerged completely.”
We all cracked up hysterically, including Howard once again. I could not believe what I was hearing. I still envision that video concept fondly in my mind sometimes, and can not help but wonder if what happened next that evening may have killed the possibility of it ever happening (believe me, I was of the mindset at the time – delusional or not – that we could somehow actually pull something like that off).
After 4 shots of the straight vodka, I was feeling pretty drunk. John expected us to keep up with him drink-for-drink and I was not about to let him down. To be honest, I was AFRAID of letting him man down because of what he might do or say to me, and I didn’t want him to kick me out. I was having way too much fun.
As the bartender teed up the next round of shots, I realized if I drank it I might actually throw up right there. So, as the other guys raised their heads to tilt back their glasses, I chucked my shot from the glass under the bar towards my feet. I slammed the glass down, pretending that I’d drained it, and the boys were none the wiser.
I repeated this “dumping the shot” for the next 3 or 4 rounds and all was good.
And then he caught me.
“You WANKER! HOW MANY SHOTS DID YOU NOT DRINK??”
“Uuuh, one or two”
“FOUR SHOTS FOR HIM! NOW!”
As she teed up the shots, I realized it was either drink or go home. I was never in a Frat before, but I imagine this would be the closest thing. Hazed by Johnny Rotten.
I used every ounce of self control I could to get the liquid past my throat and into my stomach. I felt the first contractions of vomiting but held my ground. Good. Bullet dodged.
“Alright, Howard, it’s time to get the band LAID!”
I am not now nor have I ever been into prostitutes – it’s something that I really can’t relate to. Especially back then when I was single. The chase was more exciting than the catch, and besides I don’t think I could ever have sex with anyone I hadn’t at least gotten to know a little. That and all the cooties of course.
Tim didn’t do the hookers either, so we politely passed and John and Howard went off to do whatever it is they got into the rest of the night. We never saw Johnny Rotten again.